So you have just finished discovering what others have read in 2020. Books on leadership in times of crisis, books on biblical theology which can help you preach from obscure corners of the Scriptures, books which help you explain difficult doctrines to earnest enquirers, books which expound culture and give us new clarity in our missional commitments. I never cease to be impressed by pastors and preachers who still find the time to read in their busy schedule. Learning from a variety of voices makes us agile generalists, and we all know that ministry in local churches requires just that, being able to juggle the myriad challenges that face us daily, moving from one to another in quick succession.

Learning from a variety of voices makes us agile generalists, able to juggle the myriad challenges that face us daily

But one thing I noticed in the latest round of posts and blogs. There was barely a biography of a great Christian from the past (or even a mediocre one) in the list. I admit that my research wasn’t comprehensive, but I did spend an afternoon looking at lists from a number of countries, from different theological perspectives, both men and women. There were some books on doctrine that may have included ideas of a theologian from another century, but that is not the same as reading a biography, from first page to last. Every year I say to my students that when they are in the field, they should make sure that reading Christian biographies doesn’t fall off the agenda. But it appeared in posts this year that I might be fighting an uphill battle! Why make space to read biographies?

Learning Christian compassion

Living in someone else’s world for a while is good for our soul. Not just visiting briefly to learn about an idea, but taking up temporary residence to experience their reality. Biographies stretch us, because we learn to see their world on their terms, and so we hold back our judgement. And isn’t that what compassion is about? It is too easy to judge Christians from the early centuries against the criteria of Reformation confessions of faith. Or we are quick to highlight a great leader’s error of theological judgment because we are blinkered to the pressures they faced. And in our lamentable world, compassion in pastoral ministry is more important than ever.

Learning pastoral discernment

Pastoral ministry is full of encounters with people we serve as physicians of the soul, analysing experiences and connecting life circumstances with biblical themes, observing and assessing and prescribing spiritual disciplines. Priests of OT days had the job of applying the law to individual cases of conscience, and Jesus got to the bottom of an encounter with questioning depth. Understanding context was an essential part of their skill set. And just that kind of discernment is something we have to learn. Biographies help. Good history writing doesn’t just tell a story. It tells a story with an eye to explain how certain events were provoked by other events or were shaped by bigger cultural pressures. Sometimes events might be close in time but not powerful causes. Reading biographies of the saints helps us to see what was going on in their life in three dimensions. Gold in pastoral ministry!

Learning ministry skills

I love reading Christian biographies of leaders whose gifts are different from mine

We all have strengths and weaknesses in ministry, and gifts to bless the body. I love reading Christian biographies of leaders whose gifts are different from mine, both to thank God for the ways that they have served the church, and in learning how to nurture those skills in me. I pray every day for God to lead many in Melbourne to saving faith in Christ, and if I can grow just a little in my non-dominant gift of evangelism, why wouldn’t I? Not just admiring Billy Sunday or Billy Graham from afar, but seeing behind the platform to the preparation of their sermons is so motivating.

Learning systematic theology

I don’t think it is just me. I have learnt serious amounts of doctrine by studying Christian history. In a textbook, where different positions are outlined, I never seem to see what is at stake in a disagreement, but when those very same positions are attached to a real-life person in time and space, all of a sudden I see more clearly why the doctrinal dispute matters. I can see how an idea plays out in a person’s life and ministry, and not only grasp the nuances of the idea but also the application of the idea to personal prayer or social engagement. No wonder Karl Barth’s ideas began to make sense to me when I first saw them set against nineteenth-century German liberalism.

Learning to tell stories

Evangelicals should be the Christians best suited to reading stories of great saints because evangelicals are so committed to recounting their own testimony in the first place. How God has worked in our own life has been an essential part of evangelical witness since the Reformation, with even more power since the great revivals of the eighteenth century. It is not that we should only read the biographies of great Christians who had powerful conversions, but any account of leaders of the past trains us in appreciating the power of narratives to explain our world. Part of our communication arsenal in contemporary ministry will involve storytelling, so let’s read more stories, not just biographies but perhaps even creative fiction too.

So here is the challenge for the year ahead: read a book on doctrine, on apologetics, on biblical theology, and on pastoral care, but make sure that you add to the mix a book on a great leader of the past as well. The perspective you gain and the encouragement to persevere you glean, will be good for you, as much as for the people you teach or train.

Here are some suggestions to get you started, biased certainly but useful nonetheless:

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life

Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation

Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life

Bruce Gordon, Calvin

Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis, a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

Robert Frykenberg, The Legacy of Pandita Ramabai: Mahatma of India

Neil Bach, Leon Morris: One Man’s Fight for Love and Truth

Edith Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister

Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: The Making of a Leader

Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance

Murray Seiffert, Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal elder in Arnhem Land